Politics & Policy

Lost on the Rude-Tube

Charlie Gibson's poor navigation.

ABC News anchor Charles Gibson may have thought he was giving a fair but “tough” interview to Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, in the first press contact with the new vice-presidential candidate.

But ABC did itself no favors. Viewers watching the dagger-and-sheath interview — aired on national television last night and endlessly replayed on “YouTube” — could easily draw a different conclusion. Unconsciously or not, Gibson’s manner and language fairly dripped with condescension and disbelief.

#ad#It was the flourish of a trial attorney who chooses to substitute body language for substance, in persuading the jury that the witness is unworthy.

It was, to be plain, a distraction from what could have been an interesting conversation.

Most women, even now, are quite familiar with being talked over and not so subtly demeaned when they venture an opinion. It happens at dinner parties, in Washington and New York, where Gibson reigns as a network anchor, and even in educational classrooms.

It can happen to students who venture to Ivy League colleges without the benefit of a private preparatory school. They may never have heard about a “Nash equilibrium” or “Pareto optimality.” It doesn’t mean they are stupid or without cunning.

There was no evident need to demand of Palin three times in a row how she could consider herself to have the necessary qualifications for the vice presidency. The host’s closing line was a debater’s sally — “doesn’t that take some hubris?” Gibson asked, demanding again how a local mayor and Northern Exposure governor could properly consider national office.

Religious folk may also not chuckle, when the assertion that God has a plan for the world is recast as a claim that God is sending down Defense Department snowflakes for the conduct of the war in Iraq. Believing that the Iraqi people have a right to live in freedom, without Saddam Hussein, does not mean that Sarah Palin thinks she is Joan of Arc.

And then there is the issue of the “Bush doctrine.” Charlie Gibson seemed to delight in suggesting that Governor Palin did not know what the phrase meant. But there are “Bush doctrines” on any number of issues, not least, educational policy and free trade (which the Democrats have now abandoned).

Without saying so, Gibson had in mind the 2002 National Security Strategy statement, which noted that a country does not have to suffer a catastrophic attack before using the prerogatives of self-defense, and can act when a foreign attack is imminent.

But Gibson is wrong to suppose that the right of anticipatory self-defense began with George Bush. Indeed, it was put forward early in the history of the American republic, by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, in the so-called “Caroline affair” in 1837.

And strangely enough, this doctrine was carved out in the frozen North. In the middle of winter, American sympathizers crossed the Niagara River to help Canadians in their rebellion against the British Crown. The British burned their boat and sent one man to his death over the falls. Daniel Webster conceded that the British were permitted to use force because the “necessity of that self-defence” was “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

It would have been delicious if Governor Palin had responded with the name Daniel Webster. But she had the idea, and one may excuse even a national television anchor for not knowing the doctrine’s real origin.

In one last flurry, Gibson complained that he was “lost in a blizzard of words here.” The trope was unconscious, no doubt.

The television host, who came to broadcasting from Princeton and its Tower Club, via Washington’s Sidwell Friends School, would have been well served to ask some local folk (or even some big city women) what they thought of his navigation skills.

— Ruth Wedgwood teaches foreign policy and international law in Washington, D.C.

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